Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (International Film Circuit, NR)

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The character of Tevye the Dairyman was also born out of Aleichem’s struggles to understand the rapidly changing world around him.

 

Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Rabinowitz, is best known to Americans today as the author of the stories that served as the foundation for the book Fiddler on the Roof. But there was much to his work than the stories of Tevye the Milkman, and Aleichem’s life paralleled the up-and-down existence of the characters in his stories. Joseph Dorman’s documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness presents a thoughtful, if also conventional, overview of Aleichem’s life and work, mixing straight history and biography with quotations from his writings (read by, among others, Rachel Dratch and Peter Riegert), and interviews with a variety of talking heads, including Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman (author of Up the Down Staircase).

Born in 1859 to a prosperous family in what is now Ukraine, Aleichem enjoyed a secure and happy childhood until about age 13, when his world was dealt two severe blows. First, his father lost most of his money in a crooked business deal, and then his mother died in a cholera epidemic. Aleichem’s father remarried quickly, but not without practicing a little strategic deception by hiding most of his 12 children with the neighbors and introducing them, one by one, back into the family. Apparently, the new stepmother did not take kindly to her situation, expressing herself with a colorful vocabulary, which led to Aleichem’s first literary work: an alphabetical list of his stepmother’s curses.

Aleichem’s father was a leader in the Haskalah, or “Jewish enlightenment,” and sent his son to a gymnasium where he received a secular education. Aleichem initially wrote in Hebrew but soon switched to Yiddish, and became a major advocate of the language’s potential for literary expression. Thanks to a good marriage, Aleichem was able to move his family to Kiev, where he became a stock trader by day and writer by night. After a series of speculations gone wrong, Aleichem became bankrupt, only to be bailed out by his mother-in-law. She may have saved his (and her daughter’s and grandchildren’s) financial lives, but she never let him forget it, and this experience seems to have permanently darkened Aleichem’s outlook on life. However, as with his stepmother, he turned this experience into literary gold with the creation of his first great character, the charming but hapless stock speculator Menachem Mendel.

The character of Tevye the Dairyman was also born out of Aleichem’s struggles to understand the rapidly changing world around him. In particular, Tevye’s attempts to deal with his modern daughters mirrors that of Aleichem, who had six children, none of whom spoke Yiddish.

In 1906, Aleichem was the most popular Yiddish writer in the world. He moved to New York City, hoping to break into Yiddish theater. However, his talent proved less than transferable, and after several spectacular failures he returned to Europe. As Aleichem did not own the rights to most of his stories, he was forced to embark on reading tours to support himself. Traveling throughout Eastern Europe, he was once again greeted as a hero by people who saw themselves in his works in a way that American Jews had not. But he was beginning to suffer from ill health by this time, and also felt the psychic strain of being separated from his roots. Aleichem only returned to America near the end of his life, forced out of Europe by pogroms during World War I. Ironically, his greatness was recognized more in death than in life, and his 1916 funeral was attended by a reported 200,000 people, making it New York City’s largest funeral to-date.

There’s a lot to like in Sholem Aleichem but also one big caveat: Viewing it is more like attending an illustrated lecture than going to the movies. It’s as if Ken Burns decided to make a film about Sholem Aleichem, then released it theatrically rather than on PBS. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach, but you should at least know that you’ll be buying a movie ticket to see something that might more logically be viewed on your home television. Director/writer/producer Joseph Dorman has worked mainly in television (including PBS, CNN, and the Discovery Channel), and it shows. The “Yiddishkeit 101” tone of parts of this film may also grate on some viewers, but those whose knowledge of this author begins and ends with Fiddler on the Roof will enjoy its clear presentation, which also makes it a natural for school-age audiences. | Sarah Boslaugh

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